Dr. Johnson stopped by as I was contemplating writing something in honor of Black History Month.
“You have to start with Daniel Hale Williams,” he said, “who performed the first successful open-heart surgery in 1893, just 26 years after the end of the Civil War.”
That operation took place at Provident Hospital in Chicago, the country’s first black-owned, interracial hospital, which Dr. Williams founded in 1891. As late as 1890, blacks could not gain admission to hospitals, except charity wards, and black doctors could not aspire to hospital appointments. Provident Hospital provided a place for young black doctors to practice and trained a new generation of student nurses.
“He also helped start the National Medical Association (NMA), an alternative organization for blacks, who at the time, shamefully, were restricted from participation in the American Medical Association,” said Dr. Johnson. “A society bearing his name was created in 2018 to address the need to focus on the recruitment of African-American males into the medical profession.”
The good doctor pointed out numerous other African-Americans who made giant strides in medicine that benefited us all.
“Vivian Thomas is a must,” he said. “A true groundbreaking physician. He invented ‘blue baby surgery’ for infants suffering from what is now known as cyanotic heart disease. This was a devastating, fatal condition in the 1940s, occurring when blood bypasses the lungs, thus creating oxygen deprivation and causing the skin to turn blue.”
Thomas a victim of racism pretty much his whole life. His technique became known as the Taussig-Blalock procedure after two white surgeons, Helen Taussig and Alfred Blalock.
“Thomas acted as Blalock’s assistant at Vanderbilt University and Johns Hopkins University, but it was Thomas who coached Blalock through the first blue baby surgery,” said Dr. Johnson.
Dr. Blalock praised Thomas’ surgical skill as being “like something the Lord made,” a compliment appropriated for a 2004 Emmy Award-winning television movie on HBO. Mos Def played Thomas, with Gabrielle Union as his wife, Clara, Alan Rickman as Dr. Blalock and Kyra Sedgwick as Mrs. Blalock.
In addition to the Emmy, “Something the Lord Made” won Peabody and NAACP Image Awards. The film is available for rent or purchase on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime and VUDU, and may be seen on HBO with a subscription.
Thomas served as supervisor of the surgical laboratories at Johns Hopkins for 35 years and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1976.
“This was overdue acknowledgement of a man who never got past high school, but rose above poverty and racism to become a surgery pioneer and a teacher of many prominent surgeons,” said Dr. Johnson.
Thomas’ nephew, Koco Eaton, graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, trained by many of the physicians his uncle had trained. Dr. Eaton trained in orthopedics and is now the orthopedic surgeon for the Tampa Bay Rays.
My friend and I knew we had only scratched the surface when it comes to celebrated black physicians.
“A pioneer of blood transfusion was a black gentleman, Dr. Charles Drew,” Dr. Johnson said. “It has been reported that he died of blood loss after a car accident in 1950 because a whites-only hospital would not let him be admitted, but that story is probably overly exaggerated.
“He did convince people that you can give ‘black’ blood to white recipients,” Dr. Johnson added.
The first African American to earn an MD from Columbia University in 1940, Dr. Drew was a major researcher in blood plasma for transfusion and in the development of blood banks. He was the first director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank, as well as professor at Howard University and chief surgeon at the school’s Freedmen’s Hospital (the first hospital of its kind to aid in the medical treatment of former slaves).
The U.S. Postal Service issued a Commemorative Stamp with Dr. Drew’s portrait in 1981.
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